What can social workers offer?

The College of Social Work (TCSW) has just finished a consultation with members on its draft document on the roles and tasks that require social workers.

This is an important step in the discussion about the value of social work that has been going on through initiatives like TCSW’s Business case for social work with adults and Research in Practice for Adults’ Manifesto on the value of adult social work.


The question of what social workers should do must be based on what they can offer that others can’t. Social workers are expensive – there is investment in their education, their recruitment, salaries and ongoing training. In return, they are expected to carry responsibility, provide a good service and achieve outcomes. The difficulty is identifying how to ensure the level of responsibility is appropriate, the service is the right one and the outcomes are feasible.

Identifying roles and tasks that require social workers could help organisations, and social workers themselves, to make better decisions about what social workers should be responsible for, what service standards can best be met by social workers, and what outcomes are more likely to be met when social work skills, knowledge and experience are applied.


The TCSW document makes the point that social work roles and tasks are partly a matter of what is needed to meet statutory responsibilities and partly a matter of what is best practice (most likely to improve outcomes and experiences for citizens). The document also acknowledges that ensuring social work deployment in the most appropriate cases is something that will happen through evidence of what is beneficial, effective and reputable to do. TCSW usefully point to the Professional Capabilities Framework as a way of supporting employers to see what social workers can offer and of supporting social workers to prepare themselves to discharge their roles.


My main observations on this helpful document are that, generally, the more social work deployment is based on principles rather than specific tasks, the more likely it is that social work will remain flexible and relevant to evolving social situations. It might be possible to use a ‘reasonableness’ test for when social workers should be deployed, for example – social workers should be used when the answer to the following questions would be ‘no’:

  • Is it reasonable to expect that we will meet our statutory duty for this person without intervention by a social worker?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that we will meet minimum standards of good practice for this person without intervention by a social worker?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that this person won’t meet their potential without intervention by a social worker?

I think that the list of tasks needs to be short and reflect what social workers can best offer. My view could be summarised for adults as: social workers should undertake direct work with adults when:

  • An adult who may be at risk of abuse or neglect is not able to prevent abuse or neglect taking place without social care and support
  • An adult does not have mental capacity and it is not clear what social care and support is in their best interests
  • There is a dispute over social care and support which, without resolution, is likely to lead to needs not being met
  • There is a complex situation where needs, risks, outcomes or appropriate interventions to meet outcomes is not clear

I would also want to add something like: social workers should undertake direct work with adults when an adult is not able to envisage an alternative future as a result of poverty, oppression or other social issues.

It might also be helpful to say that - social work input should be strongly considered because of evidence that it can make an impact when:

  • Building relationships with people who have particular barriers to engaging with social care and support, this may be due to oppression, disadvantage, communication problems or being from a marginalised group
  • Enabling individuals, groups and communities to identify and build on strengths and assets
  • Supporting people to build resilience following experience of loss
  • Identifying and overcoming social barriers to empowerment
  • Developing inter-professional ways of working more effectively.


I think the test for an employer about whether they made a good decision to deploy a social worker (or not) must be ‘was it reasonable’ i.e. would another employer have used a social worker in a comparable situation. This requires an understanding of when and how social workers make a difference, and so it is important to keep talking about what social workers can offer and sharing examples of good practice.


TCSW: Business case for social work

Research in Practice for Adults: Manifesto on the value of adult social work

TCSW: Professional Capabilities Framework